• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2010 •Josie Cortez

Administrators, teachers and counselors know that student engagement is important but often are at a loss for effective means of connecting with students in ways that excite and energize them. This is especially the case for educators with little experience in diverse classrooms or those who do not see the benefits of working with students who are diverse in race or ethnicity, gender, family income, age, social class, language or culture, or of students’ diverse perspectives, expectations and visions for their future. Students have an inside track on what matters to them, what kind of school they want and need, and what they want for their future and their families. The best way to engage students, all students, is to first acknowledge they have a voice and truly believe that what students have to say about their education matters. This is one of the key tenets of IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework (Robledo Montecel, 2005).

There are thousands of articles, guides and reviews on student engagement. One of the most engaging is Student Voices Count – A Student-Led Evaluation of High Schools in Oakland (Oakland Kids Count, 2003). What makes this particular report stand out is the evaluation process itself. More than 1,000 students from Oakland-area high schools completed a report card survey designed and developed by Oakland high school youth organizers. As Oakland, like every city in this country, struggles with reducing its dropout rate, high school youth challenged the adults to engage them to identify the root problems and work toward solutions.

I have been a researcher and evaluator for 30 years now, and I can tell you that their evaluation methodology is as good as any I have seen. They began with a vision of what the ideal school would look like: one that graduates 100 percent of students. This vision guided their survey categories: characteristics of effective teachers, principals and counselors who supported their success; meaningful professional development; and fundamentals for school facilities, safety, student leadership and student relations. They designed a survey using a format that was familiar and easy to use for the respondents. They paid attention to the psychometric issues by developing guidelines that students would use to evaluate their schools and included space for open-ended comments.

Using Excel spreadsheets, they entered data and pulled out meaningful comments. They analyzed and synthesized the data, and used this to develop their recommendations for improving their schools: “There are 48,000 youth in Oakland’s schools who are experts – who are in class every day and who have a lot to say about how the schools are run and how to improve our education. Whenever something happens in the schools, everyone wants to hear from the teachers and parents – but what about the students?… Why do we feel shut out, like no one cares what we think?” (Oakland Kids Count, 2003).

Some of the key findings included:

  • Three out of four students want to have a voice on school issues, such as safety, teacher quality and classes;
  • Three out of five students have never been asked for their opinion on how to improve their school;
  • Three out of four students want to evaluate their teachers and see this as a way of supporting them; and
  • Almost one out of four students did not know what classes they need to graduate from high school, much less to get into college.

Students showed a sophisticated understanding of the school system in their open-ended comments. When asked about when their teachers were less effective, their comments included: “Doesn’t explain.” “Gets flustered easy.” “Class not always structured.” “Needs more improvement on controlling class.” (pg. 8)

Students also were clear about citing discrimination and harassment at their schools: “A girl was speaking Spanish, and a secretary in the office said, ‘This is California, speak English.’” And “‘Because for me, being Black, they don’t expect much from me.’” (pg. 10)

As a result of these findings, students recommended a process for evaluating teachers, prioritizing areas for teacher professional development, adding more counselors (including peer counselors and advisors) and having them meet with individual students once a month to make sure they have a plan in place to ensure all students graduate from high school and meet requirements needed for college admission.

What is extraordinary about this effort isn’t that students designed, developed and implemented it. It’s that someone believed students had the capacity to do this and gave them the support needed for them to carry it out. Someone believed that students of different races, ethnicities, gender, family income, age, social class, language and culture could bring their diverse and unique perspectives to a common purpose. That purpose – to help make their schools work for them – has resulted in better informed school improvement and strategic plans that take into account student voice and gives it, at a minimum, the same weight as everyone else’s voice. Because this is the other part of the equation. It’s not enough for students to have a voice in their education; decision-makers must listen in a true partnership, one in which everyone is mutually committed to the same goals.

So how do you engage students, especially diverse students? You begin with the Three L’s:

  • Let go of deficit beliefs about youth.
  • Listen to young people as if their success depends on it – because it does.
  • Look upon youth as the “experts on their lives.”

Jamaul Thomas, a student at Oakland High School, summarized: “No one ever asks our opinion. The truth is, we have the most to lose when our schools aren’t working right and the most to gain when they are” (Oakland Kids First, 2003).


Tristan de Frondeville, T. “Ten Steps to Better Student Engagement: Project-learning Teaching Strategies Can Also Improve Your Everyday Classroom Experience,” Edutopia (San Rafael, Calif.: The George Lucas Educational Foundation, March 11, 2009).

Yazzie-Mintz, E. Voices of Students on Engagement: A Report on the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement (Bloomington, Ind.: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University, 2007).

Oakland Kids First. Student Voices Count – A Student-Led Evaluation of High Schools in Oakland (Oakland, Calif.: Oakland Kids First, May 2003).

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is a senior education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2010 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]